If a holiday happy hour is a sprint, New Year’s Eve is a marathon. A party to end all parties—at least the 2017 variety—can easily span several hours leading up to the much-anticipated countdown. Why not make the most of time with friends by throwing together a no-fuss charcuterie board? The rustic, laid-back feel of a grab-and-go spread is totally on-trend these days. It works with any group, menu or décor. And while it’s hearty enough to pass for a meal, it’ll also do the trick as an ultra-flexible appetizer. It’s like a win-win-win.
Lucky for us, Kowalski’s Market in Excelsior is a go-to board-building destination with a full line of specialty cheeses, meats and company-worthy snack foods sourced from local and far-flung artisan producers. Virginia Corbett is the specialty cheese manager and self-proclaimed cheese-monger for local Kowalski’s stores, and she keeps a close eye on selections for both store-created trays and customers’ make-at-home party boards.
“I’m hungry all day long,” says Corbett with a laugh. Charcuterie boards—toward which she’s admittedly a little biased—are a casual spread of mix-and-match, DIY nibbles practically made for munching, she explains. A variety of textures and flavors, piled up in an appealing arrangement of bite-sized pieces, works well with anyone’s taste, appetite or choice of beverage.
“You get a little bit of everything—savory and sweet, creamy and crunchy—and can bring together different flavors and textures without being too messy or scattered,” says Corbett. And while the options abound for adapting a spread to a specific group or gathering, there tend to be a few standbys. So plan a trip to Kowalski’s, list in hand, or assign a category to each guest.
When it comes to proteins, Corbett slices up salami and spicy prosciutto or paté—choosing alternating colors and textures. “One to chew, one to spread,” she says.
Try Red Table Meat Company, which is based in Northeast Minneapolis’ food building. Its cured meats are aged indoors as though they were outside, with controlled “weather” engineered so fats release along with the humidity and temperature swings of simulated days and nights. Another favorite is Indiana’s Smoking Goose brand, with interesting pork-based meats. Elk and blueberry? Orange and juniper? “They’re a little more gamey and out there,” says Corbett. “But so, so good.”
“What I go for is a hard, sharp, aged cheese; a semi-soft; and a mild—something to smooth everything out,” says Corbett. She calls Iowa-based Milton Creamery’s Prairie Breeze her “perfect cheddar.” And washed-rind cheeses from Alemar in Mankato, Minn., are all Corbett-approved, but “Bent River makes me go weak in the knees,” she says.
Northern Lights Blue is an award-winning local option with a bright flavor, and Kowalski’s signature Parmesan is a good toothy add-in. “It’s not just for pasta! My favorite day at work is when I get to crack open a 90-pound wheel of this gorgeous cheese,” says Corbett.
An imaginative jam or fancy jarred preserves from Lucille’s Kitchen Garden or Quince & Apple offer a touch of sweetness and smoothness between savory bites. Locally made Velvet Bees honey butter is another pantry must-have, with just five natural ingredients and a flexible flavor that goes with anything.
A loaf of crunchy bread, or just about any cracker, will work as a base for proteins. It’ll add carbs and crunch on the cheap, but be sure to throw in some colorful add-ins for a little extra toothiness. Olives, pickled veggies, dried fruits or other crudités are great options.
A jar of Sweety Drops will do the trick with style. “They’re Peruvian pickled peppers that are bright red, teardrop-shaped and burst in your mouth,” says Corbett. “They’re a big pop of color and a great alternative or addition to olives on your board. And Valencia almonds. They’re big, fat almonds with fine herbs. Beautiful and crunchy.”
Chocolate is a palate-cleanser and overall crowd-pleaser, so fill a dish or throw a few wrapped morsels onto the board. “With all these strong flavors, you can eat a piece of chocolate—and then start over,” says Corbett. Kowalski’s carries many local and fair-trade brands, including Terroir out of Fergus Falls. Legend has it the line was inspired by the owners’ honeymoon, on which they fell in love with the power of chocolate. How’s that for a love child?
Pai(ring) in the New Year
What’s a New Year’s party without a delicious beverage or two? The Wine Shop in Minnetonka specializes in small-run, carefully curated wines, beers and spirits to fit any budget or palate. Store manager David Mathiason says, when it comes to selecting the perfect beverages to go with a hearty board, “a bit of fruitiness combined with acidity work best.” He shares a few shop favorites.
Like a good red? Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, marries well with the stronger, aromatic properties of cured meats like salami. Domaine Dupueble Beaujolais ($15.99); RPM Gamay Noir ($29.99).
For a solid white, chenin blanc brings together rich apple and pear flavors with zesty acidity and a slight earthiness, says Mathiason. “It’s fruity—but not sweet—and works well with cured meats also with goat or creamy cheeses.” Champalou Vouvray ($22.99).
“Most people are waking up to the fact that a rosé is great with most foods. Charcuterie is no exception. Check out Tavel from the Rhone valley for a more intensely flavored dry rose,” he says. Domaine Amido Tavel ($15.99).
Spaniards do tapas and small plates like it’s their job. And they swear by dry sherry to stand up to salty, hard-to-pair snacks. “Manzanilla is a briny, affordable choice and will also do well with hard salty cheese and seafood,” says Mathiason. Bodegas La Cigarrera Manzanilla ($12.99).
“Sometimes you just want to feel sophisticated, and French bubbles will do this. Champagne is great with food. I especially like dry rosé because of the slightly fuller body, and lambrusco is not expensive, but a great all-arounder and festive. Most are sweet but some are surprisingly dry,” he says. Billecart-Salmon Rosé ($79.99); Cleto Chiarli “Vecchia Modena” Lambrusco Secco ($18.99).
“No wine is quite so perfumed as gewurtztraminer. Its rose petal and lychee nose and rich mid palette marry well with fatty meats such as rillettes,” says Mathiason, who notes the French standby also works nicely with hard cheese and dried fruits. Michel Fonne Gewurtztraminer Tradition ($18.99).
Need a non-wine in the bunch? Look for ciders fermented from fresh-pressed apples, or try a Belgian lambic. “These are wild, fermented beers that are sweetened with natural fruit juices,” explains Mathiason. “The wild yeast creates acidity that most beer doesn’t have—while the fruit adds richness. It’s perfect for charcuterie.” Milk & Honey (12 oz. 4-pack $12.99); New Belgium Brewery Lips of Faith Transatlantic Kriek ($15.99).